Via Reuters: Don't spread panic about bird flu, WHO urges media. Excerpt:
The United Nations health agency urged local and international media on Tuesday to boost coverage of bird flu and avoid misleading information about the disease.
"We are appealing to the media to make people more aware. We need awareness, not panic," said Ibrahim el-Kerdany, a World Health Organisation (WHO) regional media adviser.
"Just this morning on one of the television stations we saw wrong messages being transmitted, people talking about vaccines when there are no yet available. The vaccines are for birds not for humans," he told reporters.
He was speaking at the start of a three-day WHO conference on Global Pandemic Influenza Communications in Cairo.
The conference brings together officials from governments and international organisations to tackle issues including how to send out important information in case of a pandemic.
"During a human influenza pandemic, production and delivery of vaccines will take time, and antiviral medicines will be limited in supply," said Hussein A. Gezairy, the WHO Regional Director for Eastern Mediterranean.
"The single most important tool available to all countries will be communications," he told the participants.
He's right, of course. Since the Suffolk outbreak we've seen a media response far more intense than any given to the human deaths in Indonesia and Vietnam. I assume this is thanks to the elaborate media system in Britain, Europe, and the US—which assumes that local news is always more important than Third World news.
But if anything, First World media are more likely to get it wrong. In almost two years of covering H5N1, I've been frustrated by how little we learn from Indonesian, Chinese, and Vietnamese news stories. A lot of facts get suppressed. But I've rarely seen stories that actually misrepresented the facts they did report.
In our own media, reporters and editors have to fill a bottomless news hole, on a cycle now reduced to far less than 24 hours. As they scramble from the Grammy awards to Anna Nicole Smith to possible war with Iran to a flu pandemic, they don't have much time to check facts.
Even back in the lackadaisical 1980s, I saw the effects of this scramble. I had the luxury of a weekly column in a Vancouver daily. I could interview someone, write my column, and then check back with my source to make sure I'd got my facts and quotes right.
You wouldn't believe the surprise and gratitude my sources expressed when I checked back. University presidents and school principals were used to hit-and-run interviews by reporters with urgent deadlines. What appeared in print was rarely what they'd actually said.
So they saved me from some embarrassing goofs, and I managed to report what they'd really been trying to say. They were also happy to talk to me for later stories.
But I'm not blaming the reporters and excusing the sources. In a mess like this one, the sources need to pester the media, early and often. Healthcare bureaucrats and specialists should invite their local media people in for a good lunch and a long talk about what the hell is really going on. The media folks just want a good story, and it might as well be an accurate one.
This has another welcome effect. Reporters and editors divide the world into two classes: targets and sources. Targets are psychopathic liars, usually elected politicians and corporate CEOs, who understand only bullying and shaming. Sources are friends who give them the truth in a usable form.
To qualify as sources, healthcare officials need to establish good relations with their local media long before the culling starts. That will at least give them a chance to put the scientific side of the story before the public, and to minimize the errors of fact and interpretation.
This pro-active approach seems deeply counter-intuitive to most of the officials I've met in the last 25 years. But as a teacher and a journalist, I know you've got to take your students (and reporters) as you find them, and make sure they understand what you're talking about.